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What is CloudFlare Hosting?
CloudFlare is a company that provides the combined services of a Content Delivery Network and a Domain Name Server. These two technologies working in parallel provide increased speed and performance to web sites, as well as protecting them from a number of security risks such as Denial of Service (DOS) attacks
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a network of servers that are distributed geographically throughout the internet. Its purpose is to serve static web assets (images, script files, cached pages, and media) with as much speed and availability as possible.
CloudFlare CDN bills itself as the "Next Generation" of Content Delivery, because of its unique set of features.
Speed and Performance
Several factors influence the overall speed and performance of a Content Delivery Network, and CloudFlare has taken steps to optimize each one.
- Server Technology
- CloudFlare's physical server hardware is some of the fastest available. Instead of buying commodity server hardware, they designed their own servers from scratch, selecting each component -- from solid state drives to high-performance chips -- with speed in mind.
- They also built their own web server software, which allows CloudFlare servers to process millions of requests per second.
- Server Location
- CloudFlare's edge servers, the physical machines that actually store content before delivering it to your users, are distributed across the globe, at key locations near major internet hubs.
- Network Routing
- CloudFlare's Anycast technology ensures that requests for content are served from the closest possible server.
- SPDY is an internet transfer protocol that greatly speeds up HTTP. Premium CloudFlare customers have access to SPDY with no additional setup or configuration.
CloudFlare reports that the websites it serves load twice as fast after joining the CloudFlare CDN, and that requests decrease by 65% while bandwidth decreases by 60%, on average.
Content Delivery Networks have been in use for over fifteen years, but only among major websites. One of the reasons they haven't fully caught on among small and medium sized websites is issues surrounding configuration.
CloudFlare has solved that problem through its distributed domain name server technology. Setup requires only a small change in your own DNS, which allows CloudFlare to act as a reverse proxy. This takes less then five minutes. Once done, requests to your website are handled by CloudFlare and their optimized Content Delivery Network.
Customers of CloudFlare can use their Page Rules feature to specify, with amazing granularity, what content is cached, how, and when. This eliminates the inconvenient "frozen cache" problem that sometimes occurs when assets are being modified more rapidly than the cache is updated.
A Content Delivery Network gets web assets to visitors faster. A WCO, or Web Content Optimizer, improves the assets themselves, as well the way they load.
CloudFlare Optimizer improves page speed through a number of automatic adjustments, including:
- Removes whitespace and unneeded characters from HTML, CSS, and JS files. This is done on-the-fly, without caching, so it works with dynamically generated content as well.
- Local storage caching
- Takes advantage of the local storage capabilities of modern browsers and mobile devices.
- Cache header optimization
- Lets browsers know which resources to cache, minimizing overall requests.
- Asynchronous resource loading
- Allows pages to display faster by eliminating the need for the page to wait for slower scripts before rendering HTML.
- Browser optimization
- Adjusts the way content is delivered to specific browsers, to take advantage of the particular strengths and features.
- Aggressive GZIP
- Compresses assets to half their size without losing any data.
CloudFlare provides advanced security against a range of attacks such as SQL-injection and distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks. CloudFlare's system monitors traffic patterns across a large network and is able to identify and learn from each attack attempt, improving security over time for both your website and the entire CloudFlare network.
CloudFlare Security features are quite extensive, but they are also very easy to configure and use, thanks to their dead-simple security options:
- I'm under attack!
- Essentially off
CloudFlare also provides detailed threat reports, telling you who is attacking and how (and how they were stopped).
CloudFlare Analytics works in conjunction with your existing web analytics provider (for example, Google Analytics) to provide detailed information about your traffic in real time. Information available through CloudFlare Analytics includes:
- Traffic breakdown by category
- Search Engines
- Threats and Attacks
- Detailed Threat Monitoring
- Detailed Search Engine Crawler statistics
- GeoIP location
- Outbound Link activity
CloudFlare Account Plans
CloudFlare provides basic access to their Content Delivery Network and Security for free. Premium features are available through their Pro, Business, and Enterprise plans.
This software as as service (SaaS) is not a type of hosting, but it may be used with any hosting provider. Hosts who partner with CloudFlare offer one-click setup through cPanel, Plesk, and other control panels.
CloudFlare Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
What is Cloudflare?
Cloudflare is a company that provides traffic optimization and security services to websites. The range of services offered by Cloudflare includes a content delivery network (CDN), website resource delivery optimization tools, protection against distribute denial of service (DDoS) attacks, SSL certificates, firewalls, threat detection and blocking, DNS services, and more.
Will Cloudflare speed up my website?
Yes. Cloudflare will store static copies of your site on their CDN – a technique referred to as caching. This will speed up your website in two ways. First, the stored files are static, so your visitors won't have to wait while your web server creates them dynamically. Second, the files will be hosted on Cloudflare's global CDN – meaning customers will be sent the files from the server location nearest to their physical location.
Is Cloudflare free?
Cloudflare does offer a free plan with limited access to its most valuable features. For full access to all Cloudflare features, you'll have to sign up for a premium account.
Is the free plan worth using?
Yes. The free plan offers access to the Cloudflare CDN, basic DDoS protection, and can be used to add a free SSL to your site – all valuable services that will speed up your site, improve site security, and improve your site visitors' experience.
What is a content delivery network (CDN)?
Without a CDN, when a visitor reaches your website the website files are generated and delivered by your web server to the visitor's browser. The farther the visitor is located from the physical location of your web server, the longer the files will take to be delivered.
A CDN hosts static copies of your website on many servers around the globe. That way, when a visitor reaches your site, the files are delivered from the nearest CDN server, meaning that the files are delivered more quickly.
What is a DDoS attack and how does Cloudflare help stop them?
A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack occurs when someone maliciously sends lots of fake traffic to your site to try and overwhelm your web server. Cloudflare protects against this by spreading out the requests between all of the CDN servers and by also blocking hits from known sources of malicious traffic.
Should I use Cloudflare?
If you want to improve your website's speed and deflect malicious traffic, then you should seriously consider using Cloudflare. For most websites, there's simply no downside to using Cloudflare.
Why might I not want to use Cloudflare?
Since Cloudflare stores static copies of your website, if your website is updated on a very regular basis (many times per day) there may be issues where some visitors see cached (stored) copies of your site that do not contain the latest updates.
While there are ways to work around this, and Cloudflare is designed to make this possible, you will probably need to hire a developer and possibly purchase a premium plan to get things properly sorted out. Dynamic websites that are updated all the time may find it more beneficial to invest in premium hosting, DNS services, and specialized DDoS protection rather than a catchall CDN service such as Cloudflare.
How do I start using Cloudflare?
Cloudflare is integrated into the hosting control panels offered by many web hosts. The easiest way to set up Cloudflare is to use the Cloudflare setup tool included in your hosting account control panel.
Cloudflare isn't integrated with my hosting control plan, can I still use it?
Yes. However, you'll need to sign up by going directly to Cloudflare, and then follow along with their site setup instructions.
While manual setup is a bit more challenging that automatic setup through your hosting account control panel, as long as you have basic website and domain management experience you should be able to follow along just fine.
The final step in the process will be to point your domain at Cloudflare's nameservers. That way, all traffic to your site will funnel through Cloudflare's CDN.
Should I upgrade to a premium plan?
If you need access to features that aren't included in the free plan, then you should consider a premium plan. For instance, if you already have an SSL installed on your site that you'd like to keep using, then you'll need a premium plan to integrate with your existing SSL. Access to advanced DDoS protection, premium support, and web application firewalls are a few of the features you'll get with an upgraded plan.
Can I use Cloudflare over HTTPS (with an SSL certificate)?
Cloudflare offers a free SSL to all customers. If you already have an SSL then you can set up Cloudflare to work with your existing certificate, but you'll need to sign up for a premium plan to do so. If you already have an SSL and want to switch to a Cloudflare SSL you will need to uninstall your existing SSL before setting up Cloudflare.
Will Cloudflare reduce the load on my web server?
Yes. Since Cloudflare stores copies of your site on its CDN, many visitors will be able to view your site without your web server doing a thing. The visitors will simply see the static copies of your site that are stored on the CDN. Your web server will only have to process a request and send out a resource if a visitor requests a resource that is not stored on the CDN or anytime you update your site. If your web server is struggling to handle the traffic to your site, setting up Cloudflare will reduce the load on the server and allow your site to handle more traffic.